See the Question cover artwork (2016)
Short story: I wrote a poem in alien-ese. Fuller story as follows:
Since I first met Tim Johnston in 1998, the games we played with our Lego men have gradually matured and metamorphosed into a long-form dark-comedy sci-fi writing project, collectively known as 'Universe XGT'. Along with the main open-ended storyline dealing with the self-inflicted misadventures of the Murk Army, UXGT has also started to see some more serious world-building work over the last few years, fleshing out some of the extraterrestrial civilisations which form the backdrop to the lives of Murkum & co. One of the best-developed of these is a race called the b'Grud, whose mindset lies at the most pragmatic and industrious extreme of the psychological spectrum. Among numerous other facts and figures, I'd made a start on working out their language, Ballum - a task made easier by its rigid paratactic grammar, which came about as a natural development from the general milieu of Grud culture.
For a few years, the subject of Ballum was limited to generalised speculation. However, Tim then found out that as part of the second year of his Bachelor of Music degree, he might have the opportunity to pick his own text to set to music as part of a composition assignment, and he asked if I could write a chant in Ballum for him. The start of work on the module in question was still several months off, so my writing project wasn't urgent, but I thought the prospect of penning an entire poem in an invented alien language, complete with its own alphabet, was too good to pass up, so I started scribbling down a few lines whose sentiments I thought might make sense coming from a Grud pen, albeit putting them down in English for the time being.
A few months later, once the second year of Tim's degree was well underway, he came back to me and confirmed that he would, in fact, be able to use a Ballum text, so at that point the language development project got kickstarted in earnest. As things stood, the grammar didn't have rules to allow for more complex sentence structures, and we only had a vocabulary of a few dozen words, nowhere near enough to write any meaningful literature, so as well as completing the poem in English I had to set about refining the grammar and the alphabet, and massively expanding the vocabulary, which ended up with a little over 400 words.
Although the first couple of verses had initially been somewhat abstract, I realised two-thirds of the way through writing the poem that, at its heart, it was a sober-minded but nonetheless visionary celebration-in-advance of a pioneering interplanetary colonisation effort - as one does. The b'Grud would write that sort of thing. Structurally, I ended up with six stanzas of six lines each (notionally derived from the six faces of a cube, a shape which we had long since decided the b'Grud are fond of), in a free meter. The bilingual text of See the Question was completed in April 2016, with the musical setting following a few weeks later. Among other artefacts from the project, there exist five different iterations of the text in different phases of translation (English, English rearranged into Ballum grammar, transliteration of Ballum vocabulary, transliteration with detailed stress notation to aid pronunciation, and finally the Ballum script), plus a recording of me reciting the poem in Ballum.
There was one last thing to add before the assignment went off to Tim's lecturers for marking: cover art. Initially, Tim had asked if I could digitise a watercolour called Industrial Night, depicting a factory city on one of the Grud planets, which I had painted in summer 2012; however, it was too large for my scanner, and I thought it didn't really reflect the themes of the poem as much as I'd have liked, so instead I sketched a new image to serve as the cover sheet for the printed score, drawing directly from the themes of the text.
The song version uses a complex system of overlapping time signatures, making it very difficult to perform accurately, and at the time of writing See the Question has yet to be performed live. So, since I can't look at a printed score and hear what it should sound like (unlike some, Tim for example), I have no idea what the effect to the ear would actually be. I live in hope that someday someone will be brave enough to organise a performance so I can find out. In the meantime, though, I'm very happy with how See the Question came out as a piece of literature.
Notes on structure:
The six stanzas of See the Question form an approximately symmetrical structure: the first three verses build up to a question, and the final three elaborate on the answer. The chant can be pictured as a pyramidal shape, and connections or contrasts drawn between the three resulting pairs of verses on opposite sides:
Look up from your homeworld:
see the question.
It demands you apply your mind.
Lay down your hammers;
look up from your homeworld,
and consider the question.
From the fading sky, the first stars' fires shine.
Then as one speaks,
One thought provokes another;
conference discovers wisdom:
ten thousand candles write a mighty fire.
The skies question us:
'Who will enlighten?
Who will build?
Who will forge new highways?
Who will apply,
and who will understand?'
We will answer the skies:
'What is life in the dark?
Our eye seeks the light;
our hand holds the squaring tool.
We will make new skies beneath our feet,
to answer those which reach over us!'
To your hammers!
To your fires!
Our drive unsleeping will build again:
forge a new ship for a new voyage;
as we have sailed the oceans,
so we will sail the skies.
Make crew and make provision;
set out along the new highway;
rise up from your homeworld:
add to the fire new candles,
and the sky will brighten -
let the conference above rejoice in our answer!'
Look up please homeworld from your:
see please the question.
Demand does it this: apply you mind your.
Lay-down please hammers your;
look up please homeworld from your,
and consider please the question.
Shine do the fires stars' first the sky from fading.
Then as speak does one,
answer does another.
Provoke does one thought another;
discover does conference wisdom:
write do ten-thousand candles a fire mighty.
Question the skies us:
'Who enlighten will?
Who build will?
Who highways new forge will?
Who apply will,
and who understand will?'
Answer will we the skies:
'Life the dark in what is?
Seek does eye our the light;
hold does hand our the tool squaring.
Make will we skies new feet beneath our,
to answer they the, reach those us over!'
To please hammers your!
To please fires your!
Build will again drive unsleeping our:
forge please a ship new a voyage for new;
as sail did we the oceans,
so sail will we the skies.
Make please crew and make please provision;
set-out please the highway along new;
rise up please homeworld from your:
add please candles new the fire to,
and brighten will the sky -
rejoice let the conference above answer in our!
Simmog juu sair dabox hogg se:
sisshad sair go giv.
Angak dan vyl deok: tharrog sek yor se.
Gyil sair bəkoddag se;
simmog juu sair dabox hogg se,
tok yosshad sair go giv.
Ngassam dan go bəhorg tavəbəgyef təjul go howr hogg ləthazzil.
Hodd bodd ballum dan jul,
shin dan noddan.
Judroce dan jul yollum noddan;
yotthok dan rəhamblum polen:
hulləm dan zom bəjorbif pə horg luum.
Giv go bəhowr bek:
'Gen ngassam byg?
Gen grel byg?
Gen bəbolmar zhilm chowl byg?
Gen tharrog byg,
tok gen yovvist byg?'
Shin byg bek go bəhowr:
'Luord go thaz nax gead shen?
Ummog dan siv be go ngass;
varlg dan dolg be go yeesh goxil.
Til byg bek bəhowr zhilm bədulk gyhe be,
datt shin braeb go, jowheg heok bek juhe!'
Datt sair bəkoddag se!
Datt sair bəhorg se!
Grel byg nodəm kloeb keeləngorth be:
chowl sair pə gold zhilm pə langrod redd zhilm;
ow wesshek dysh bek go bəngowrom,
aff wesshek byg bek go bəhowr.
Til sair golrud tok til sair boepudd;
zubrog sair go bolmar grett zhilm;
juam juu sair dabox hogg se:
chatto' sair bəjorbif zhilm go horg datt,
tok ngassil byg go howr -
bahholss chail go rəhamblum juhe rəshin nax be!
© Matthew G. H. Colclough 1988-2024 - all rights reserved
Background image by Timothy Johnston